One of the most important tools you will have before you start packing, is a kitchen scale or something to weigh your kit on. Carrying too much can ruin your Camino, making you miserable, increasing the risk of injuries and the temptation to quit. So whether you can afford to buy ultralight gear or use what you have, make sure you have an idea of the weight of it. It’s incredible how those small nice-to-have items add up to pounds and kilos! Be aware of what you carry, and don’t carry stuff you don’t need.
I personally think that the packing phase is great fun, it adds to the anticipation and connects me to the walk before I have even set foot on the Camino. Your mileage may vary, but I really believe that taking time to whittle down the list of stuff you think you need to a list of what you actually need, is a good mental exercise in simplicity and an effective cure for the materialistic culture most of us live in these days.
So what do you need on your pack list? Things that keep you dry, warm, comfortable, clean and safe. In other words:
Comfortable pack: Get one that carries the weight well, not too big as you might get tempted to fill it. 30-40 litres will suit most needs and in most cases be allowed on flights as hand luggage. Hip belts take the weight off your shoulders, but make sure it fits you and that you will be comfortable carrying it with your kit weight all day, every day. If you don’t intend to use a poncho or similar, make sure it has a rain cover.
Good footwear: Boots? Shoes? Sandals? That’s the age old question, and one only you can answer. Remember that leather, when it gets wet, takes ages to dry, and try to find footwear with good soles that cushions the impact of the tarmac and concrete parts of the walk. Go for long walks in them before you leave, to make sure they are comfortable over time. Also it is a good idea to bring one pair for walking and one for the evening or as a spare pair in case you suffer blisters, get too hot etc.
Rain gear: Rain jacket and trousers? Poncho? Raincoats with room for backpacks? Again it’s a personal preference, but don’t assume that you will avoid the rain (especially if going to Galicia). Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
Warm layer: Temperatures can start low in the morning before the sun rises and drop in the evening or when it rains. Make sure you have a warm layer to add when needed. Fleece, sweater, jacket – something that will keep you toasty until you warm up again. Gloves, hats, scarves, buffs are optional, depending on time of year. Consider the wind chill factor too – pertex wind shirts are perfect for windy places.
Change of clothes: You really only need two changes of clothes. I know, I know, but it’s actually true. One to walk in and one to wear after your shower, while the walking outfit is drying. I would recommend three pairs of socks though, just in case.
Sleeping bag: Down, synthetic, liner – depends on the time of year and also your personal preference. Do you easily get cold when you sleep? Or do you get too warm? Try your sleeping kit out at home with the heat on or the window open, and make sure you will get a good night’s sleep. Being comfortable for the eight hours you’ll be sleeping is as important as the X hours you’ll be walking. And going without one is not an option unless you are staying in hostales/hotels/private rooms.
Toiletries: You really need very little to keep clean. Soap and/or shampoo for your hair, body and clothes, toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb or brush, (small) towel, sun cream in the summer. Toilet paper just in case. Anything else is really just optional and possibly unnecessary?
First aid: Medication, plasters, foot care items of your choice – plus possibly things like antihistamines, painkillers, disinfectant. The Spanish farmacias are very good and can help you with just about anything else.
Valuables: Passport, credencial, tickets, money and credit cards. Don’t bring any other valuables you can’t stand to lose.
Phone: Having a mobile phone can be a good idea in case you have to call the emergency services, if not for yourself, then for someone else. You don’t have to use it for anything else, or you can get a Spanish SIM card to make calling home cheaper.
Maps and guides: A guide book can provide good info on where you are, emergency numbers, the nearest farmacia or albergue, local and regional holidays etc. Some of them are very heavy though, so have a look at the lighter, smaller, simpler ones.
Other: Safety pins for hanging washing are a stellar tip. Some swear by ear plugs for a quiet night. Some bring headlamps for early starts, or just a small torch to show the way to the bathroom at night. Most bring a camera, some bring personal electronics like MP3 players, e-readers, tablet PCs etc. Sarongs are a multitasking favourite: bedsheet, curtain in front of a bottom bunk, (spare) towel, bath robe, skirt, scarf, picnic blanket etc. And lots of pilgrims prefer to walk with poles.
That sounds like a lot, but in reality it should end up short and sweet. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that I have used the expression ‘just in case’ twice in the text and with good reason – take no chances with toilet paper and dry socks!
I have posted my packing (and un-packing) list here, feel free to comment if you have any other top tips or think I have missed something. Good luck with your packing!